In his televised speech to the nation Wednesday evening, Barack Obama has a major opportunity to put his wavering presidency back on track by firmly and clearly saying how he intends to deal with the terrorist Islamic State. He must stop talking about containing it and start emphatically talking about and taking the necessary stops to destroy and eradicate it.

While acknowledging that the task won't be accomplished overnight and that it can't be a go-it-alone enterprise, the president needs to inject a much sharper personal commitment to decisive military action for victory than his cool and measured temperament has dictated up to now.


The threat, however remote, of another terrorist assault on the American home front gives Mr. Obama the same opportunity for building domestic unity behind his strategy as President George W. Bush seized after the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Bush's outspoken resolve to hit back spurred a national togetherness at that time and for a long while thereafter, until his invasion of Iraq began to erode his public support.

Until now, Mr. Obama has stumbled, especially with his clumsy observation that he had "no strategy yet." He also has been hindered by his six-year determination to steer the country away from endless war-making in the Middle East. But now he must face up to the reality of this next terrorist threat, and persuade Congressand the American public to get behind his plan of action.

Events, most notably the brutal beheading of two American journalists by Islamic State executioners, have already done most of that convincing. What may be in doubt, both in Congress and on Main Street, is whether President Obama himself is willing to take the hard military actions required, without shattering his ambitions to end the cycle of military engagements he inherited.

The president has consulted with congressional leaders leading up to the disclosure of his strategy, with no clear indication whether he would seek further authorization to launch military strikes against the Islamic State forces within Syria as well as those already taken in Iraq, or just proceed.

But with leading Republicans like Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz urging him on, it would seem politically advantageous for Obama to get commitments from them and other like-minded Republicans now, rather than to invite more sniping from them down the road.

With such a major foreign policy on the president's plate, it is mystifying why he allowed himself to get cornered in the last week by publicly delaying until after the November congressional elections his stated intention to hold up deportations of children flooding over the southern border.

The president caught hell not only from disappointed Latino groups but also from Republican political operatives. They castigated his delay as caving in to embattled Democratic Senate candidates in sharply contested states dependent on substantial Latino turnouts to save them.

Instead of so publicly surrendering to the fears of his Democratic strategists that going forward with use of executive power in the immigration matter would trigger a strong Republican backlash, Obama could easily have said nothing on that front. He could have indicated he had his hands full dealing with the Islamic State threat, dictating his priority.

Rather, this president known for coolness under fire seems close to being overwhelmed by the developing consequences of an untidy world coming apart at the seams. Rumblings of Cold War confrontation from Russia in Ukraine also have darkened the landscape.

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, these complications come as he is fighting to ward off loss of the U.S. Senate in November, which could make the last two years of his presidency even more of an agony.

Whatever strategy he decides on for destroying the Islamic State, no positive result is likely to come quickly enough to lighten the political horizon for him right now. But if he can bring the country with him on a truly muscular response under the umbrella of genuine international action, he may yet have a chance of accomplishing things in his two remaining years in office.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is